Care and Feeding

My 5-Year-Old Performs Terrifying Torture Surgeries on Her Dolls

Is it normal for kids to be this macabre?

A toddler with her hair in twin buns smiles serenely while holding a pair of scissors.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve noticed that my 5-year-old daughters have become increasingly macabre in their imaginative play in ways that would put Charles Manson to shame. In the bathtub recently, one of them happily took a baby doll and pretended that she was “cutting her open to see what was inside and make her die by taking out parts of her and putting poison in her.” Shudder. Given that everything else about their behavior is completely within the normal range (they have a safe and loving home, they are well behaved in school, we don’t allow them to watch violent media), I have to rationally conclude that this must be “normal,” and it is unlikely that my daughters will grow up to be psychopathic serial killers. I think the appeal of it is that it’s a safe way for my daughters to explore boundaries, by doing things that are egregiously “bad” or “yucky” without consequences. Maybe it indicates that they are actually beginning to develop a moral compass through understanding right and very, very wrong. But man, if it doesn’t chill me to the bone! Should I continue to let them explore as long as their behavior remains OK, or should I intervene and talk to them about these “dark” urges?

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—Freaked-Out Parent

Dear Freaked,

Kids can be so, so creepy! Five is an especially ripe age for this kind of bone-chilling body horror play because kids this age have a lot of vocabulary and imagery at their disposal but are still not quite able to grasp death and injury’s seriousness or permanence.

I agree with you that these baby doll surgeries are a safe way for your daughters to explore boundaries, and I don’t think you need to intervene or discourage them. Maybe, though, if there’s a moment when everyone is happy and relaxed and feeling chatty, you could start a conversation about these games by just asking some open-ended nonjudgmental questions. What do they think the doll is feeling when they cut her open? You might get even more freaked out by their answers, of course. But maybe you can use the moment to feed their curiosity in a way that makes it easier to keep the lines of communication open, so that they can come to you with any ideas and questions they have, no matter how “icky.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I know this is the third rail of parental advice columns, but: circumcision. My husband and I (I’m a woman) are trying for kids, and so far our best compromise on this topic has been “hope for a girl.” He is Jewish; I am not. He is not religious in the slightest, but he was raised in a 100 percent Jewish context and cannot imagine a noncircumcised son. He can’t really defend his position aside from his strong personal feeling. I was raised in the American context in which circumcision was the default when I was a kid, but isn’t so much anymore, and given the option, I would prefer not to surgically intervene on a child’s genitals! But my husband has very little connecting him to his heritage these days, and almost never asks for anything culturally specific to be a part of our lives, so I feel churlish being so against this. I feel like if he could make even one scientific/logical point in favor of circumcision, I’d jump on it. I want to agree, but I feel so protective of this theoretical child! Basically, we’re in a position with big feelings on both sides and no real sense of how to talk through it, and it is VERY hard to find straightforward advice anywhere because nobody wants to take a strong position for or against.

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—Foreskin’s Lament

Dear Foreskin,

I am boldly stepping into the fray here, simply because this is not my first time at the foreskin debate rodeo and, as such, I am hoping that I can provide some useful perspective, if not a strong position for/against.

I agree with you that it’s important for your husband to provide you with some context for his position, but it’s also possible that he himself might not fully understand why his feelings on this subject are so strong. Also, his reasoning might not qualify to you as “scientific/logical.” For some Jews, circumcision is a way of literally embodying their heritage. Even if other customs aren’t part of their lives, having a physical characteristic that links them to other Jewish bodies is a deep part of their identity. Other Jews see it as an outmoded tradition that excludes babies without penises from being ritually welcomed to the community. Some progressive Jewish communities have even come up with alternative ceremonies to mark a birth.

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Since you’re not even pregnant yet, you two have some time to really interrogate this. It’s an opportunity, if you want it to be, to talk about how he feels about his Judaism, and what role if any he wants it to play in your family’s life. It might be helpful to get off the internet for this one and consult some friends, family members, a rabbi if you know or feel close to any, a pediatrician, really anyone who’s had experience with this vexed issue. Maybe you’ll both end up seeing this as a chance to have an intimate reckoning with your ideas about deep issues like bodily autonomy, identity, and faith, rather than an intractable difference of opinion playing out on the battlefield of your future child’s potential penis.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner has two daughters (from different moms) and a dog. My stepdaughters, ages 22 and 14, live with us 30 to 50 percent of the time depending on time of year. When we bought our new house 2.5 years ago, my partner and I agreed that once the dog passed we wouldn’t get another dog. Everyone knew this when we moved (I also have two kids, ages 23 and 19). Four weeks ago, the dog passed at age 15, and the full-court pressure for getting a new dog has begun from my stepdaughters. My kids who live with us full time don’t want another dog. My partner has repeatedly said no. But now the 14-year-old is saying it’s better for her mental health and would make her “more comfortable” at our house. She is suffering from anxiety and depression made worse from pandemic. But she also has a dog at her mom’s.

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I feel like she’s using her mental health as leverage to get what she wants. I could list 100 reasons why I don’t want another dog, and my partner agrees. Another wrinkle is that the 22-year-old said she’d get a dog and take it back and forth between her mom and us. That sounds fine in concept, but I know that there is no way that we won’t somehow end up taking care of this dog. My partner is feeling the pressure and is worried about the younger’s mental health. How can we continue to say no? Am I unsympathetic by holding my ground? I worry if I say yes I will just end up angry and resentful. Please help.

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—No More Dogs

Dear No More Dogs,

Not only do you not want another dog, but your kids who live with you full time don’t want another dog. Your partner is understandably concerned about his younger daughter, but another dog won’t magically fix her depression and anxiety. You have made your boundaries clear, and now you have to do the difficult work of sticking to your guns. Your partner needs to support you in this decision 100 percent and make his support clear to your stepdaughters, while continuing to do everything he can—short of getting a dog—to support their emotional well-being. You need him on your team here, and his wavering is not doing any of you any favors. Kids need adults to be trustworthy, firm, and resolute. Caving to pressure is the opposite of that.

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If all of that seems too draconian, it’s fine to hold a family meeting to air out everyone’s feelings on the dog front and then make a mutual decision to revisit the dog issue in some set amount of time. Circle a date on the calendar six months from now and schedule another dog summit for then. Maybe something will have shifted, who knows. Until then, you can definitely kick this can down the road until everyone is in a better headspace.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have been together (not married, but together) for almost four years. When we first started dating, I told him very bluntly that I was having fun, things were great, but kids are in my future, and if he really didn’t like kids (he and our friends always talked about not being able to stand children), then this would be a fling and we’d be done with it. He took what I said seriously and said “I can consider kids, especially if it’s a while off.” I asked him to clarify, because I know that trick, and he said he didn’t want them now but would be agreeable to it in the future. That was a fair answer, so I took it.

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We have talked many times about being parents. I’ve always made my expectations clear. He is still fine with children, but here is my problem: He is firmly against having a baby, and wants to adopt. I have no problems with adoption; I myself am adopted. I’m a teacher, and so I have “25 kids of my own” that I would scoop up and take care of in a heartbeat. The problem is not adopting a child, and the problem is not having one of my own. It’s that my husband hates babies. He has mild autism, and everything about babies sets him off. But I actually do want a baby. And while I can’t pinpoint why, I just know that I do. How do I approach this with my husband? Will we ever agree, or should I just divorce him now?

—Agonizing Over Adoption

Dear Agonizing,

I think if you reread your letter, you will see the answer to your own question. Your husband is “firmly against having a baby,” “hates babies,” and made it clear from the outset that he really doesn’t like kids. I’m not going to touch the “mild autism” excuse except to say that plenty of people with autism have babies. While I don’t know your husband’s exact experience, I don’t automatically accept it as a justification for his feelings, which also don’t need justification. It’s fine to not want a baby. It’s also fine that you do. But you two are not going to magically begin to agree. You have been willfully ignoring the writing on the wall for a long time, even while telling yourself that you see through his tricks.

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Since you know you want to have a baby, you must make a decision about your marriage based on everything you understand to be true about yourself and your desires and needs. I wish you strength and courage to follow your heart and do what you already know you need to do.

—Emily

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